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Research Help: Getting Started

This webpage is designed to give you an introduction to basic research in the library. On this page you will find text, videos, and online guides with information on:

  1. Focusing a research topic and finding background information.
  2. Creating a search strategy: Developing good keywords and search strings.
  3. Searching databases for books and articles.
  4. Evaluating the information you find.
  5. APA and MLA formatting
  6. Where to go for more help.

1. Focusing a Research Topic and Finding Background Information

Many times when students choose a research topic, they start with a broad topic idea (i.e. Gun control, childhood education, nursing practice). It would be very difficult to cover the scope of these topics in just a few pages. Instead, it is better to focus on a narrower aspect of a broad topic.

The quickest way to focus a topic is to turn your broad topic idea into a research question.

Phrasing your topic as a question forces you to think about what aspects of that topic you are truly interested in researching. Think of a one-sentence question you want your research and writing to answer.

For example:

  • Broad Topic Idea: Gun control
  • Research Question: How can we better prevent children bringing guns to school?

If you need help moving from a broad topic idea to a more focused research question, try mind-mapping! This is a great way to brainstorm the many aspects of a broad topic, and allows you to visualize these aspects before choosing one to focus on.

Mind-Map Example:

Mind Map of Topic

But sometimes you don't know what the various aspects of your topic are... You need an overview or some background information on your topic!

Finding Background Information on Your Topic

Encyclopedias, dictionaries and other general information sources are known as Reference Resources and typically cover the "basics" of a topic. These are excellent sources for general overviews and a great way to learn more about your broad topic area. They can be very general, covering a wide range of topics like the Encyclopedia Britannica, or they can be specific to a certain subject like the Encyclopedia of Social Issues.

In addition to a general overview of your topic, reference resources may also discuss problems or controversies within the topic area, tell you the names of important people, give you specific keywords or terminology related to your topic, and may also list additional sources where you can find more information.

To find background information on your topic, start with an encyclopedia entry. Encyclopedia entries will help you focus your broad topic by pointing out aspects of the topic you may not have considered.

Find links to HTC's online encyclopedias and reference resources on the Find a Database tab of the library website. Look for Topic Development / Reference option in the "Subject" drop-down menu.

Topic Development/Reference selected in Subject drop-down menu on library "Find a Database" tab.

For more help focusing research topics, using reference resources, or developing research questions - check out the following guides and videos:

2. Creating a Search Strategy: Keywords and Search Strings

Keywords are the most significant words or main ideas from your proposed research question; and the words you will use to search for information on your topic. 

There are two parts to developing the best keywords to research your topic:

  1. Identifying your primary keywords
  2. Identifying synonyms or related words
  3. Creating search strings using keywords and Boolean Operators

A. Identifying Primary Keywords

Look at the research question you wrote out. Take out all the little words like if, it, is, in, of, to, and a. Take out any generic words like effects, problems, consequences, impact, etc. Focus on the few remaining words that get to the heart of your topic. For example:

  • Research Question: How can we better prevent children bringing guns to school?
  • Primary Keywords: prevent, children, guns, school

B. Identifying Synonyms or Related Words

When you search within a library resource (i.e. an article database), most often the database is trying to match the EXACT keyword you type in the search box to the same word within an article. This means you will run into trouble if you are not using the right words to find the best articles.

To develop the best keywords for your topic, make a list of the primary keywords you just identified then think of any related terms or synonyms you could use instead. With this exercise, you are building yourself a troubleshooting net so that if your first searches don't find what you're looking for - you have a list of other words you can try instead.


Primary Keywords

  • Prevent
  • Children
  • Guns
  • School

Related Keywords/Synonyms

  • prevention, preventing, stop
  • kids, youth
  • weapons
  • middle school, high school, class


C. Creating Search Strings Using Keywords and Boolean Operators

Databases don't "speak" in natural language.  We need to talk to them in their own language to find the best results.  To do this you will combine your primary and related keywords with Boolean Operators to create search strings. 

There are three basic Boolean Operators: AND, OR, NOT

  • AND is used to connect unique aspects/variables of your topic.  The more keywords you connect with ANDs, the fewer results you will get in your database search.
    • Example: Children AND Guns -- 2,937 results
    • Example: Children AND Guns AND School -- 905 results
    • Example: Children AND Guns AND School AND Prevent -- 64 results
  • OR is used to connect related words or synonyms.  The more related words or synonyms you connect with OR, the more results you will get in your database search.
    • Example: Guns -- 71,900 results
    • Example: Guns OR Firearms -- 76,847 results
    • Examples: Guns OR Firearms OR weapons -- 154,194 results
  • NOT is used to exclude a keyword from your search results that is not relevant to your topic.  The Boolean NOT is rarely used.  Be careful when using NOT as you can accidentally exclude relevant articles from your search results.
    • Example: Children NOT Teenagers
    • Example: Middle school NOT High school

The most effective search strings use both AND and OR to connect primary and related keywords. Search strings can range from simple to complex and can look different depending on if you are typing your search into a single search box (aka basic search) or multiple search boxes (aka advanced search).

Example of a Simple Search String

Children AND Guns AND School

Example of a Complex Search String

Children AND (Guns OR Firearms) AND (School OR Class*)

Notice that when typing a search string in a single line (as you would in a single/basic search box), you need to place parentheses around the keywords that are connected with OR.

If you are using an Advanced Search within a database where you have multiple search boxes to enter your search terms, parentheses are not needed as long as you type the keywords representing the individual, unique aspects of your topic in separate search boxes.

Example of a complex search string in an advanced search (multiple search boxes)

Advanced Search example in database.

For more help developing keywords and creating search strings - check out the following guides and videos:

3. Searching Databases for Books and Articles

In this section you will learn how to find:

  1. Books and ebooks using Library OneSearch
  2. Popular and scholarly articles using Library OneSearch
  3. Popular and scholarly articles from a specific library database

Before you begin, learn why using library databases is important for finding relevant, credible research on your topic:

A. Finding Books and Ebooks using Library OneSearch

The library's OneSearch tool allows you to search nearly all of the library book, ebooks, and article databases with one search box.

To find books and ebooks with OneSearch:

  • Enter your keywords into the search box on the main page of library website.
  • Your results will be displayed in two columns - Books & More on the left and Articles & More on the right.
  • The Books & More column has all physical items from the library collection (books, DVDs, etc) as well as all of our ebooks and streaming videos.
  • Click the Books & More heading for a single column view (hides the Articles & More column).

For more information on accessing our print books and ebooks - check out the following guides and videos:

B. Finding Popular and Scholarly Articles Using Library OneSearch

The library's OneSearch tool allows you to search nearly all of the library article databases with one search box.

To find popular and scholarly articles with OneSearch:

  • Your results will be displayed in two columns - Books & More on the left and Articles & More on the right.
  • The Articles & More column provides a large selection or relevant journal, magazine, and newspaper articles pulled from the libraries article databases.
  • Click the Articles & More heading for a single column view (hides the Books & More column).
  • Within the single column view, use the checkboxes on the right side of your results to refine or focus your search results.

For more information on accessing popular and scholarly articles within OneSearch - check out the following guides and videos:

C. Finding Popular and Scholarly Articles from a Specific Library Database

The HTC library has access to many research databases that are specific to certain subjects - nursing-specific databases, business-specific databases, education-specific databases, etc. You can find a list of all of our databases here:

Searching for popular or scholarly articles within a specific database will give you more control over your search and can lead to more relevant results than you might see with OneSearch.

To find popular or scholarly articles within a specific database:

  • Click the Find a Database tab located above the OneSearch search box
  • Use either the alphabet or the drop-down menu for a list of recommended databases within a program or topic area.
  • If you know the name of the database you want to search: use the alphabet to navigate to the database.
  • If you DO NOT know which database to use: select your program or topic area from the drop-down menu. Click the Browse button to get a listing of recommended databases. Select a database from this listing.
  • Once you click in to your selected database, enter your keywords into the database search box to retrieve articles related to your research topic.
  • If you have tried several database searches and are not finding the information you seek, please contact the library for assistance via our Contact Us page.

For more information on accessing specific library databases, searching for articles in a database, using database limits, and troubleshooting your search - check out the following guides and videos:

4. Evaluating the Information You Find

There are many criteria to keep in mind as you are evaluating the information you find. Whether you are considering an internet source or an article from a library database, look at the following:

  • Who wrote it?
  • What are the author's credentials?
  • When was it written?
  • Does the author back up the information with citations or references? What kind of sources do they list?
  • What is the reputation of the publisher or the publication?

The following handouts and videos list specific, detailed criteria you should consider as you are evaluating library sources or websites from the open Internet (i.e. Google):

You can also practice your website evaluation skills with the library research guide: Evaluating Websites

5. APA and MLA Formatting

When you write a paper, you instructor may require you to format either your paper, your references and citations, or both in a certain formatting style. Formatting styles ensure that all the information in a paper or reference / works cited list is presented in a standardized way.

The two main formatting styles you're likely to encounter are APA style and MLA style. Sometimes the discipline you are in dictates the formatting style you will use. APA style is typically used for education, psychology, and science disciplines. MLA is typically used for humanities disciplines.

The following videos and websites go into specific detail (including examples) on how to format papers, reference or works cited lists, and in-text citations in each specific style:

6. Where to Go for More Help

If you need further assistance, here are several options:

  1. Call or email the librarian for assistance.
  2. Stop into the library to talk with any of the library staff.
  3. Chat with a librarian using the 24/7 chat service on our Contact Us page
  4. Visit the Research Tools & Guides page for access to program-specific online research guides and tools like the Research Project Calculator.
  5. Visit the Writing & Citing Help page if you need assistance with creating citations or writing a paper.